Although it's possible to tackle some DAW-based mixing and automation tasks using simple MIDI controllers, that approach has clear limitations. If you want a more sophisticated and detailed hardware interface for your software, a growing number of high-end control surfaces can provide you with much more than simple fader and transport control.
As you might expect, high-end MIDI control surfaces come with high-end price tags — some are more expensive than good-quality compact audio mixers. Nevertheless, they offer powerful features and a level of intuitive control of DAW functions that together make the investment worthwhile for many personal-studio owners. If you need speed, ease of use, and more complete access to your DAW in a hardware interface, one of the high-end control surfaces could be for you.
All of the units apply the “8-track paradigm” to their design, meaning that you have command of only eight simultaneous channels at a time. To access more than eight channels in your DAW, you need to switch channels or banks using the control surface's interface. The units also provide control of plug-ins and effects and offer varying degrees of automation depending on the specific hardware and software implementation.
The Mackie Designs HUI ($3,499; see Fig. 5) has made its way into various facilities, including home and project studios, audio- and video-editing suites, and even some mastering houses. The HUI is the only control surface in this group that also passes audio signals. The HUI sports a versatile monitoring matrix that allows for independent routing of three stereo inputs into three stereo outputs and offers a discrete mode for monitoring 5.1-surround mixes with a single master-volume control. The HUI's first two channels also provide analog microphone paths complete with preamps and phantom power, which lets you control an overdub session while tending to your DAW's other needs. The HUI even supplies a third input for a talk-back mic that is routed to the monitor section, or you can use the built-in mic. A mono Summing button and a big Volume knob allow the HUI to elegantly solve DAW-monitoring challenges, such as dealing with multiple speaker setups and headphone distribution.
JLCooper markets a line of powerful and versatile workstations that are capable of audio and video editing and are designed with expandability in mind. The MCS-3800 ($2,999.95; see Fig. 6) can be linked with multiple MCS-3000X Expander units ($1,999.95). Each expander adds eight more faders and function buttons, and it can operate as a less featured standalone unit. (Optional end caps are available for standalone expanders to give them a finished look.)
The series also includes the MCS-Panner joystick module ($999.95) for multichannel surround mixing, the MCS-Orbiter touch-sensitive motorized joystick panner ($1,999.95), and a slew of other specialized add-ons. JLCooper's mix-and-match approach to control-surface configuration is too extensive to cover in this roundup, but it also includes the FadeMaster series, a less expensive line of smaller four- and eight-fader modules that can function as basic standalone controllers or in combination with other units.
In addition to functioning as a general control surface, the Radikal Technologies SAC-2K ($1,849; see Fig. 7) has meticulous profiles for Digidesign Pro Tools, Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer, and Steinberg Nuendo that provide detailed control of functions specific to each application. Overlay sheets rename the silk-screened button labels on the unit for easy identification.
CM Labs provides a control surface that squeezes the most functionality into the smallest space. The MotorMix ($995; see Fig. 8) was one of the first affordable controllers for those making the leap into native desktop recording and mixing, and it's still a popular choice among musicians. In spite of its small footprint, the MotorMix is powerful, and you can link multiple units to form a larger work surface. A separate transport control is also available.
Although the control surfaces perform many of the same operations, each has a unique look and feel. In many ways, the HUI resembles Mackie's popular D8B digital mixing console, which drew some of its design elements from the HUI; it's one of the largest of the pack. The SAC-2K is also rather large compared with some of the others, and it showcases a sporty, modern look. The MCS-3800 looks and feels much like a professional video editor, whereas the MotorMix has a footprint not much larger than a sheet of paper.
As with the inexpensive MIDI control surfaces, the main attractions of the high-end units are their banks of faders. In addition to supplying a more direct approach than a mouse to making level changes, hardware faders make it possible to independently ride the levels of multiple tracks at the same time. Expectations for fader responsiveness are understandably higher with control surfaces costing well over $1,000, as most of these units do.
All of the units in this group feature a bank of eight motorized, touch-sensitive 100 mm faders. Moreover, they allow two-way feedback of information, meaning that changes to virtual faders made in the host software are actively reflected in the faders. You can update or overwrite the fader settings on the fly by simply moving the faders. The HUI and SAC-2K also have an additional dedicated master fader.
The faders on the HUI, MCS-3800, and SAC-2K are all good quality and comparable in response and feel. The faders' travel paths are smooth, and there is only a bit of play when you wiggle the faders from side to side.
The faders are smooth and consistent as long as you don't lean on them. Pushing down while moving a fader causes it to catch and interrupts the flow of the move. When I first got the HUI, I exerted a bit of downward pressure on the faders in a way that had always been acceptable on full-size consoles. Backing off the downward pressure and thinking “touch” rather than “push” eliminated the problem. The MCS-3800 faders respond in a similar manner.
The SAC-2K also took some getting used to; the concave finger rests on the faders are slicker than those on the HUI and the MCS-3800. My finger had a tendency to slide around in the curves of the faders, so at first I grabbed the fader at the top and bottom to initiate moves. That's not a healthy way to continuously operate a level control, and I eventually retrained myself to drop my finger straight down on the fader, which helped. However, I would prefer to have a textured surface on the faders so my fingers wouldn't slide around unnecessarily.
As moving faders go, these three workstations are all pretty quiet. The only time that mechanical fader noise would be an issue is if you had several hyperactive channels continuously jumping around. (If that's your bag, most of the units provide power-up demos with synchronized dancing faders.)
The faders on the MotorMix felt stiffer and a bit grainier than those on the other units, though according to CM Labs, the fader mechanisms are the same as those on the SAC-2K. The faders were noticeably noisier than those on the other units, and the motorized movement was not as smooth. Also, a small plastic film guide that is designed to keep out dust is in the path of the fader track. In some spots on certain channels, the plastic makes a high-frequency crinkling sound when the fader is moved quickly; that could be bothersome to some people. Nevertheless, the MotorMix faders seem reliable and durable.
Not one of the faders in this collection of control surfaces feels anything like the faders on an SSL or a Trident console — that would be an unrealistic expectation. However, a gentle touch can yield excellent response with these controllers.
DO THE TWIST
Buttons and knobs abound on the units. The HUI, MCS-3800, and SAC-2K have conveniently located dedicated transport sections for play, record, stop, as well as other functions and also provide Jog wheels for scrolling and scrubbing. The MCS-3800 alone offers a shuttle-ring mechanism surrounding its Jog wheel. The HUI and MCS-3800 also have a numeric keypad. On the SAC-2K, clicking on the Num button converts a group of numbered buttons into a numeric keypad. The MotorMix offers dedicated Play, Stop, Fast-Forward, and Rewind buttons, but they are not arranged as conveniently, and the labels are more difficult to read than those on the other units.
The HUI, the MotorMix, and the SAC-2K furnish dedicated knobs for adjusting channel parameters such as panning, send amounts, and so forth. The MotorMix uses a single knob for assigning the parameter of the individual channel knobs, whereas the HUI, SAC-2K, and MCS-3800 have a separate row of knobs for adjusting plug-in parameters, EQ, and other functions. The MCS-3800 does not have knobs specifically assigned to each channel, making it a bit less intuitive but no less functional for setting channel panning and other parameters.
The HUI, MCS-3800, and MotorMix have dedicated Solo and Mute buttons on each channel. The SAC-2K is a little different: it uses a single button per channel for both functions; a master switch determines the mode.
The HUI has the biggest and most complete collection of dedicated buttons. Included are buttons for auditioning, looping, zooming, various automation and editing modes, and keyboard shortcuts. Footswitch jacks provide for remote control of functions such as play and record, and your computer's mouse can be attached to the HUI for convenience.
All four units offer LCDs. The MotorMix has one 2-by-40-character display. The HUI and the MCS-3800 provide a 2-by-40 display as well as a dedicated LED location and time display. The HUI also includes stereo bar-graph meters for each audio channel. The SAC-2K offers the most displays, with three 2-by-40 screens and a location and time readout like that on the HUI and the MCS-3800.
All of the controllers work with an extensive variety of music-production applications, such as Cakewalk Sonar, Digidesign Pro Tools, Emagic Logic Audio, MOTU Digital Performer, and Steinberg Cubase VST and Nuendo. (Check the manufacturers' Web sites for a list of supported programs.) The control surfaces have been developed with particular support for Pro Tools. The HUI and SAC-2K also package detailed control-surface plug-ins specifically designed for Digital Performer, and the MCS-3800 currently posts a Digital Performer plug-in (still a beta version as of this writing). In addition to most major sequencers, many software instruments are also supported by these units. The SAC-2K, with more than 45 virtual-instrument edit templates, is especially noteworthy.
The MotorMix is designed for basic ease of use, especially for Pro Tools users (Digidesign is the exclusive distributor of MotorMix). It provides access with a minimum of fuss to the most commonly required functions such as transport control, fader automation, soloing, muting, and plug-in editing. Its small size makes it a good choice for those who need portability or want to conserve work space. Although its faders are a little noisy, the unit is a good value.
The MCS-3800 is totally professional. It's a bit generic on the surface because many of the buttons don't have specific names, but it's easy to learn how to use. The MCS-3000 line is quite extensive; for those who need expandability and a wide range of compatibility with other hardware, especially video equipment, the MCS-3800 is an excellent choice. It's not cheap, but JLCooper has been a proven leader in controllers and synchronizers for many years, and it shows.
The SAC-2K was one of the easiest pieces of gear to get started with. I used it with Digital Performer, which simply entailed plugging in the MIDI cables, creating a FreeMIDI device, and copying the supplied plug-in into the proper folder. Minutes later I was writing fader moves. Although it supports many music applications, the SAC-2K is especially well suited for Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Nuendo, Cubase VST, and Magix Samplitude. In addition, the SAC-2K gets top marks for its snazzy appearance.
The HUI is perfectly suited to Pro Tools and supports Digital Performer and Soundscape RED. It is elegant, highly functional, and powerful. Its audio features give the added bonus of meeting your monitoring and talk-back needs while also providing two microphone channels, making it potentially the most practically useful of the bunch.
Rob Shrockhas recorded or performed with Burt Bacharach, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, LeAnn Rimes, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and many others.
During the past couple of years, EM published reviews of most of the control surfaces in this roundup. If you want a more in-depth look at the products, check out the following reviews:
CM Labs MotorMix 3/00 Edirol U-8 9/00 Mackie HUI 1/00 Peavey StudioMix 11/99 Radikal Technologies SAC-2K 1/02 Tascam US-428 9/01